The Maya of Central America had one of the greatest ancient civilizations of the world. It consisted of hundreds of large and rich cities spread over the south of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and western Honduras.
Between 250–900 C.E., the Maya civilization was at its peak. It was during this period that the most amazing and iconic cities were built as a result of their advances in construction. It was also during this time that the Mayans made historic discoveries in fields like astronomy.
By the end of that period and the major Mayan centers started to go into decline for reasons unknown to historians and scientists. The decline resulted in the abandonment of the large cities. By the time the Spanish discovered the region, the Mayans were already living in smaller, less powerful towns. Mayan culture and knowledge were in the process of being lost.
Many of the old cities were claimed by the forest as time passed, which ultimately preserved many of the structures that have been found to date. While there are hundreds of Mayan archaeological sites in Central America, here are some of our favorites.
Xunantunich is located in Cayo District near the Guatemalan border. It was once a ceremonial center from the late classic period. Its name, which means “stone woman,” is a reference to the ghost of a woman that is said to inhabit the site since the early 1890s.
Xunantunich boasts six plazas and 25 palaces. It is considered the second most important Mayan site in Belize after Caracol.
It is famous among visitors for its beauty and has a small museum where you can learn a lot about its history.
This archaeological site is located in northern Belize. What makes it unique is the fact that you can still see where the residential groups were located. There is even part of a structure that used to be a steam bath that is thought to be from 900 B.C.E. Burials sites have offered archaeologists a better picture of Mayan life with treasures like ceramics.
The site is located on private land but the family allows visitors to check out the site.
Caracol is also located in the Cayo district within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, about 40 kilometers away from Xunantunich. It was once one of the most important political centers if the lowlands during the classical period.
Aside from being the largest Mayan site in Belize, it also contains the largest structures of the country. There have been over 70 tombs excavated and a number of hieroglyphs uncovered, making it an extremely important site for archaeologists.
Cerro Maya (Belize)
The city of Cerro Maya as once a very important trading spot for the other cities in the region. This city was thought to be at its peak towards the end of the pre-classical period. You will find it in the northern coastal area of Belize. To get there, you can go by boat or car. Traveling by car offers a unique experience with beautiful views.
You can climb to the top of its tallest building and get a great view of the Caribbean.
You will find Lamanai in the northern region of Belize in the Orange Walk District. What makes this site unique is the fact that it was one of the Mayan cities that was inhabited for the longest period of time. It was built in the pre-classic period and was still a vibrant place when the Spaniards arrived. That’s about three millennia of Mayan inhabitance.
Altun Ha (Belize)
This Mayan site is also located in northern Belize, near Belize City and the Caribbean Sea. Before archaeologists started taking care of it, some of the rocks from the structures were used by locals to build their own homes.
The tallest structure in the complex (Temple of the Masonry altars) is featured in the logo of a local beer. This small site is perfect for a short day visit.
Tikal was once a huge city. Many think of it as the most powerful out of all the Mayan cities. The place is huge. If you truly want to explore all it has to offer, you have to spend at least a night in it or return the next day.
If you only have one day, make sure you head to the iconic main plaza and then make your way over to Temple #4. This is the tallest structure in the whole place and offers amazing views.
The place is also known for its wildlife from monkeys to wild turkeys. Those who spend the night might even see some jaguars at night.
Yaxhá used to be a ceremonial center and is located between two lagoons. It is considered as one of the best-kept secrets of the Mayan world. You are almost guaranteed that there won’t be crowds as you explore the royal palace, the astronomical complex, and its cobblestoned streets.
Yaxhá contains over 500 structures, 40 stelae, 13 altars, and nine pyramids.
El Mirador (Guatemala)
El Mirador was the city that took the crown from Tikal as the largest Mayan center found. It is also home to one of the largest pyramids in the world built during ancient times.
The place was discovered only a couple of decades ago. It is so big and buried so deep in the jungle that there is still no infrastructure to support tourism. To get there, you have to take a five-day hike along the jungle or get a helicopter. Thankfully, visitors are welcome to camp there making the trek especially worth it for people who enjoy sleeping in the great outdoors.
Takalik Abaj (Guatemala)
You will find Takalik Abaj in southern Guatemala in the Retalhuleu Department. Takalik Abaj was a very important place for commerce during the pre-classical and classical periods. In modern times, it is known as the site that has produced the largest number of ancient carvings and artwork of Guatemala and contains a hydraulic system that even includes a kind of Mayan sauna.
Iximche is a small complex located in the highlands of Guatemala. While not as spectacular as its larger counterparts, its location offers amazing views of the surrounding mountains.
During Mayan times, Iximche was a fortress on top of a mountain that stood untouched until the Spaniards arrived. After it was conquered, it was turned into the first capital city of Guatemala and all of Central America.
If you walk all the way to the back you will find an altar that is still used by modern Mayas for their rituals.
Quirigua is located in the Izabal Department. It isn’t one of the largest sites. It was at its peak during the classical period and was once an important military and trading center of the region. What makes it unique and important is the fact that in it are a lot of scriptures written over some of the tallest stelae in the New World.
Joya de Cerén (El Salvador)
You will find Joya de Cerén in the central region of El Salvador. It was an agricultural town that was only populated for about 200 years. It was abandoned due to an eruption from Laguna Caldera.
This is an extremely important Mayan site because it is one of the few that shows how the lower class lived. There are no huge palaces or homes of the elite. Instead, you find small homes with three or four structures that served as rooms, kitchens, or saunas.
Tazumal (El Salvador)
Tazumal is located in the Santa Ana Department of El Salvador. It is in a region with four other sites and was populated for a little over a century. Tazumal shows how sophisticated the Mayan civilization became with their large temples and drainages.
The structures here aren’t purely Mayan, however. The city's people were influenced by Copán and the Toltecs and it shows on their architecture, making it a unique combination.
Aside from the structures, be sure to see some stelae and a few of the 23 tombs that have been found in it.
Copan is in western Honduras is extremely popular among travelers and important for scientists. And rightfully so. Tons and tons of sculptures, artwork, carvings, and decorations have been found in it. All of them help narrate the history of this town.
This was one of the most powerful cities in the southern Maya region but finally got defeated by Quirigua.